Sign Of The Times

The Sharpie 500 is over, but the autograph chase is never finished.

The race was the Winston Cup event held at Bristol last night, with the Sharpie brand of pens being a first-time sponsor of the event. Sharpie is the brand of choice for autograph seekers, with the markers perfect for getting a signature on just about everything.

Many professional drivers would tell you that they spend more time signing autographs than they do behind the wheel of a car. They’re not exaggerating.

Racing’s great for several reasons: the roar of engines, the blur of speed, the smell of fuel and burning rubber. And you’ve got a sport where a part that costs a dollar can make or break a career.

But don’t underestimate the importance of a fan being able to get autographs of their heroes. The pen is mightier than most balls and sticks.

Perhaps the greatest autograph opportunity in the world comes at an NHRA drag race. Sure, you can get autographs after IRNLS qualifying sessions and before Winston Cup races, but at most NHRA events you can get something signed in between rounds.

Not only that, but you can stand in line at a team’s trailer, just feet away from the crew as they swap out engines, fill up the tank and check on the rubber.

Drivers on almost every circuit, from Dale Jarrett to John Force, keep a Sharpie in their driver’s suit. Some even keep things color coordinated, with the pen matching their sponsor’s colors. Public relation personnel stay stocked up with the pens, with many team transporters having a case of Sharpies in between boxes of car parts.

The drivers on the Winston Cup and Formula One circuits have it the worse, but even 9-year-old quarter-midget driver Matt Martin (Mark’s son) signs autographs. Shoot, even driver’s wives are asked to sign.

Just about everybody in racing spends hours and hours dealing with the autograph.

Drivers sign contracts with sponsors and other advertisers that sometimes have pages and pages that deal with autograph sessions; how many there will be, who pays for transportation, what the format will be like.

Sponsors want their drivers to sign for their employees and customers. Fans want to get autographs at the races. Tracks and sanctioning bodies are involved. Drivers frequently come out to the souvenir trailers for signing sessions because even the merchandising makers know the importance of the autograph.

Check out just about any driver’s personal web site. Several will have detailed explanations on how best to get their driver’s signature. Many keep a calendar of a driver’s autograph sessions.

Most racing teams have an administrator (or two or three) just to handle autograph requests they get in the mail. These aren’t just for the driver, but just about every member of the team. Owners and crew chiefs also get boxes and boxes of mail. Many teams have entire rooms of their shops set aside just to process autograph requests.

Some NASCAR drivers spend a couple of eight-hour days a month signing just items that have come in the mail.

The late Dale Earnhardt would often spend the first two hours of his day signing away at his office. This would be at 6 a.m., while most of the rest of the world was sleeping. Despite this practice, he would get months and months behind in handling his mail. He spent the first part of every offseason trying to catch up.

Most drivers understand fans’ desires to get an autograph, a practice that reaches down to the grassroots of racing. The accessibility of drivers is not just a sign of the times, but a time-honored tradition.

In NASCAR and the NHRA, most drivers grew up at the local track. They chased autographs of their own. Bobby Hamilton, for example, got Richard Petty’s autograph at Nashville Speedway when he was 10. Later, Hamilton would drive Petty’s famous No. 43.

Some drivers love signing, especially for kids. Others enjoy it to a point, the point where they don’t have any privacy or any sense of normality in their life.

The drivers that hate giving autographs are careful not to let it be obvious. When you talk about the signature moves of some drivers, you aren’t talking about how they corner a turn or make a bump and a pass. You’re really talking about their little tricks to avoid autograph signers.

Some fail to make eye contact, while others always appear busy by talking to somebody they’re walking with. Many have someone run interference for them or take funny routes to wherever they’re going.

Yet, all of the drivers put up with it. They have to. On Saturday night, for instance, they were making their living at an event sponsored by a brand of pens.

They are some of the few people in the civilized world that butter their bread with a pen.

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